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COVID’s return: An indoor mask mandate for Charlotte, regardless of vaccination status

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County public health officials are recommending a mask mandate for the entire county. Commissioners will vote on that this Wednesday.

  • It’s unclear how long the mandate will remain in effect.
  • Enforcement will be up to individual businesses.

The six towns in Mecklenburg County can pass their own mask mandates sooner and individually if they choose. Charlotte’s mask mandate also applies to unincorporated parts of the county.

  • Amid the latest COVID-19 surge, a handful of places around North Carolina — including Boone and Durham — have also reinstated indoor mask mandates for everyone, regardless of their vaccination status.

Mecklenburg County leaders said that COVID-19 vaccination remains a priority, though they haven’t considered a vaccine mandate, as cities such as New York and New Orleans have done. County manager Dena Diorio said that could happen eventually.

“If we need to get to that point we’ll certainly consider it. We’re going to try a mask mandate to see if we can get our numbers under control,” Diorio told reporters.

Also in Charlotte, doctors are echoing the CDC’s new recommendation that women who are pregnant and breastfeeding get the COVID-19 vaccine.

What they’re saying: Women who are pregnant are at much higher risk of severe illness due to COVID-19, Novant’s Dr. Navin Bhojwani and Dr. Amelia Sutton told reporters Friday.

  • Data show there’ve been no adverse effects related to the vaccine for women who are pregnant or for women who are trying to become pregnant, they said.
  • The vast majority of pregnant women who require hospitalization because of COVID-19 are unvaccinated, the doctors said.

“It’s unprecedented, the number of pregnant women that are on a ventilator right now. Many of my colleagues who’ve been practicing for decades are shocked and horrified by how the ICUs are filling with pregnant women,” Sutton said.

One recent study found pregnant women who contract the coronavirus have a 60% higher chance of having a premature baby, Bhojwani noted. That risk skyrockets if the mother has a preexisting condition like diabetes or obesity.

“If they’re not vaccinated they’re really putting themselves at far greater risk for a myriad of consequences, some of which will be impactful to their unborn children,” Bhojwani said.

  • Also last week, the FDA authorized a third COVID-19 shot for individuals with compromised immune systems.

By the numbers: Last week, Mecklenburg County updated its local COVID-19 dashboard to show that percent positive cases were up to 13%, a significant increase from the low of about 2% earlier this summer.

  • 260 people in Mecklenburg County were hospitalized on average in the past week, also an increase.
  • North Carolina has now administered more than 10 million COVID-19 vaccines, the per state DHHS data Friday. Vaccinations continue to increase, but still only 48% of the state’s total population is fully vaccinated.

Meanwhile, requiring workers to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 is becoming increasingly common among big Charlotte employers.

This month, seven of Charlotte’s largest independent medical practices, including Tryon Medical Partners and OrthoCarolina, announced they’re requiring all employees to be vaccinated by Oct. 31.

  • The decision stems from rising cases that are driven by the highly contagious Delta variant among unvaccinated people, the groups said in a statement.
  • The move follows similar vaccine mandates from Atrium Health, Novant Health and CaroMont Health.
  • In response to the recent vaccine mandates, 55 N.C. House Republicans sent a letter to health system executives asking them to “reexamine this requirement.”

Zoom out: All over Charlotte — from grocery stores to breweries to even the sidewalks — there are signs that COVID-19 is again not just top of mind but driving the way we live.

  • A StarMed spokesperson confirmed in early August that they’d seen daily testing triple in the last two weeks. Vaccinations are on the rise at StarMed, too.
  • Anecdotally, masks have multiplied at grocery stores and restaurants and tire shops.
  • Protesters gathered at Freedom Park recently in opposition to Atrium and Novant’s vaccine mandates.

Meanwhile, as Cooper and several media outlets have noted, vaccinated people are getting more frustrated with unvaccinated people.

Here are the latest vaccine mandates, mask mandates, and other news regarding the response to the new surge:

Local government

Mecklenburg County: Starting Sept. 1, county government employees will be required to show proof of vaccination or undergo weekly COVID-19 testing.

Charlotte will start verifying the vaccine status of about 8,000 city government employees starting next week, per the Observer. But the city did not say it would require regular testing if employees don’t get vaccinated by a certain date.

Entertainment

A growing number of live music venues in Charlotte are starting to enact tighter safety measures — including requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination, in light of the current coronavirus surge.

  • Live Nation has updated its event policy: Effective Oct. 4, all attendees must provide either proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test within 48 hours of a show, per Rolling Stone. Live Nation operates several major music venues in Charlotte, including PNC Music Pavilion, The Fillmore and Charlotte Metro Credit Union Amphitheatre.
  • The Neighborhood Theatre in NoDa also said over the weekend it’s requiring proof of a COVID-19 vaccine or a negative test result within 48 hours of a concert. “Our venue withstood more than a year with our doors closed, but if our staff were to become infected, the doors would close again and more shows would be canceled. We are committed to providing the safest environment possible for all concert goers and performing artists,” venue management posted on Facebook.
  • The Evening Muse is requiring proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test.
  • Singer Michael Buble postponed his North Carolina concerts, moving his Charlotte show from Aug. 17 to Oct. 24, because of concern over the Delta variant.
  • Garth Brooks, scheduled to perform at Bank of America Stadium Sept. 25, is reassessing his upcoming stadium tour, per the AP.

Healthcare

  • Atrium Health: Requiring all employees to be fully vaccinated (or have a medical or religious exemption).
  • Novant Health: Requiring all employees to be fully vaccinated (or have a medical or religious exemption).
  • Seven independent medical practices are requiring all employees to be vaccinated by October 31. They include Tryon Medical Partners, OrthoCarolina, Surgical Specialists of Charlotte, Charlotte Eye Ear Nose & Throat, Carolina Neurosurgery & Spine Associates, Charlotte Gastroenterology & Hepatology, Carolina Asthma & Allergy Center.

Schools

  • CMS: Requiring all students of all grade levels to wear masks.
  • Cabarrus County Schools: Masks required.
  • Gaston County Schools: Masks required.
  • Kannapolis City Schools: Masks required.
  • Union Academy, a k-12 charter school in Monroe, will now have a mask mandate after one week of classes with unmasked students brought 14 COVID-19 cases and led to 150 students and staffers being quarantined (WFAE).
  • Union County Public Schools: Masks still optional, after a heated debate this week.
  • Rowan-Salisbury Schools: Masks optional.

Gov. Roy Cooper and state health leaders on Aug 12. sent a letter to some schools urging them to reconsider their mask-optional decisions and instead move to require them for the upcoming school year.

  • “The science is clear that children learn better when they attend school in person and the science is also clear that masks reduce COVID infections so we can keep them there,” Cooper said in a statement.

[Go deeper: Will local schools require masks this fall?]

Big workplaces

  • Red Ventures, which employs roughly 1,400 locally, is reopening its Fort Mill campus Monday on a voluntary basis. Everyone who wants to return to work in person must be fully vaccinated.
  • Duke Energy, which has about 6,000 Charlotte employees, is requiring all workers to wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status.
  • Lowe’s, which has more than 12,500 employees in the region, is also requiring masks.
  • Ally, which employs about 2,100 here, is limiting office access only to those who are fully vaccinated.

[Further reading: More employers may begin mandating vaccines.]

Vaccine incentives

North Carolina is offering $100 for first-time COVID-19 vaccinations (plus $25 for their drivers) at certain sites throughout the state Aug. 4-Aug. 31. It’s a way to try to increase vaccinations.

  • The state’s latest vaccine incentives are for everyone 18 and older.

Zoom out: Our Axios Local partners across the country found scattershot approaches to the CDC’s new guidance that even vaccinated people should wear masks.

  • Our friends at Axios Tampa Bay reported that Friday, July 30 brought more new cases in Florida — 21,683 — than any other day since the start of the pandemic.
  • And Katie noted the difference between mask feelings in Charlotte and in Gastonia — where one store advertised a PPE blowout sale.

Reality check: As Axios reported recently, of the 164 million vaccinated Americans, 0.077% have tested positive for breakthrough infections and 0.001% have died.

The bottom line: The key to enjoying a fall free of this exhausting tension will be getting the infection numbers to go down again.

  • Vaccines worked to dramatically drop the numbers this spring. Health officials say they’re the most effective way to make sure it happens again, even in the face of the Delta variant.

This story was last updated on August 17.